The savage and dangerous truths women can tell

The savage and dangerous truths women can tell

Comment: Arab women should tell their stories in all their joy or brutality, without fear of outside censure, writes Amal Awad.
6 min read
23 Aug, 2017
Kuwaiti MP Safa Al Hashem delivers an impassioned speech in parliament [Getty]
When Margaret Atwood's bestselling dystopian feminist novel The Handmaid's Tale was recently adapted for television, it met with a rapturous reception. 

Critics pointed to the quality storytelling - a sepia-toned cautionary tale that, for some women, felt closer to home than was comfortable considering Donald Trump's conservative US presidency (think abolition of laws supporting safe abortions for starters).

But women unabashedly shared articles and praise for this grim story because of its warning about the status of women. The story imagines a new America named Gilead run by Christian militants, where barren wealthy women keep handmaidens as slaves to conceive children in a ritual of sex with their husbands that essentially amounts to rape.

It's a world that involves savage punishment for disobedience, death to homosexuals, and in Atwood's original telling, the preservation of the white race. The television adaptation bypasses the idea of a racist Gilead, positing the idea that all women are created equal in their inferiority. White or black is not important in Gilead - your status is, but even the female slave owners suffer at the hands of men.

Anyone reading Atwood's original novel can tell you that, despite the focus on Christian fundamentalism, it was a warning that there are women who are living like slaves in other countries (Saudi Arabia, which in the 70s saw a rise in Islamic militancy, is frequently cited as an inspiration for the book).

It also seems to borrow from the history of slavery and the atrocities committed against black women. 

What would a Handmaid's Tale told by a woman closer to the source material look like?

And of the criticisms around Atwood's tale is that she has made use of real tales of horror to imagine it as white America's problem in a dark, distant future. For all the discomfort the book deals in, Atwood was not necessarily out of place – she is an acclaimed author who filled a gap.

And that's what no doubt jars for some - she wrote it because no one else had. But what would a Handmaid's Tale told by a woman closer to the source material look like?

Would it be more horrifying in its authenticity and relevance? Would a woman who had truly suffered the depravity of similar crimes tell the story in the first place.

As a woman of Arab heritage, and coming from a Muslim family, I have been dealing with this my whole life.

Who has the right or insight to tell stories that reflect my reality or the reality of other females like me? When I finally found the courage to talk about the challenges of being a woman in an ethnic minority living in the West, I felt the responsibility of not making things worse.

Still from Algerian film "I still hide to smoke"
Rayhana's debut feature film I Still Hide to Smoke features an all female cast [ Les Films du Losange]

Enough people had limited ideas of Arab society and culture - talking about a restricted upbringing, for example, might only reinforce negative stereotypes that overlook the complexity of your life and the love in your family.

Fiction is, arguably, a powerful way to explore truth.

Reading a book like Nawal El-Saadawi's Woman At Point Zero – a heartbreaking, fictionalised account of a real woman's life as she sits on death row - the depth and complexity of the challenge of being a woman in Egypt hits the reader hard.

And you don't question any of it. El-Saadawi has a right to tell this story. The stakes are high for her and her honesty in recounting the tragic life of a woman who has been many things, including a wife, a prostitute and now a prisoner, means she pays a price. As her protagonist tells us, "They said, 'You are a savage and dangerous woman.' I am speaking the truth. And the truth is savage and dangerous."

Talking about a restricted upbringing, for example, might only reinforce negative stereotypes

I thought of this recently as I watched Rayhana Obermeyer's Algerian film I Still Hide to Smoke, a searing portrayal of life in Algeria during the "black decade".

The film, which screened at the Arab Film Festival Australia, was so contentious there were numerous walkouts. It was possibly the nudity, the uncensored conversation, the politics, the ideology, the sheer brutality of their lives.

But I would argue that the discomfort ran deeper - it was the truth of what we were saying, especially painful for those who prefer to sit in denial that Arab communities have social problems.

Obermeyer's piece, based on a play she wrote in exile, is explosive in that way. It's raw in its depiction of women troubled by lives they can't always control, but buoyed by hopes that better times will arrive.

It's also necessary storytelling. That many are in denial that bad things happen to women in their cultures is a common enough issue. It's also a universal one because the problems so often facing women are universal.

The violence of this film is not only literal (though there is some); it's the brutality of life's imbalances, and the way humans further sway those imbalances to make sense of their existences. And at what cost? Women often suffer in the process of finding and maintaining power.

Women often suffer in the process of finding and maintaining power

It's a point that only cemented further in my mind when I watched another festival film, Gaza Surf Club, a documentary that focuses on Gaza's small but passionate group of surfers. But it wasn't the young brutalised men who lingered in my mind as I left the cinema, though you ache for their aimlessness and the wasted potential of these men living under occupation. It was Sabah, a sweet-faced, ocean-loving teenager whose father taught her how to swim and surf.

Clip from "Gaza Surf Club" [Sundance Now]

Hijab-clad when on dry land, she's is battling her own desires in a society burdened by occupation but also the imbalances between males and females. Sabah wants to travel and be famous, she admits, dreaming of the day she signs autographs.

When her father ferries her out into the ocean and lets her remove her coat and scarf so that she can swim, she returns to shore to a heroine's welcome from school girls clamouring to ask her about swimming, their excitement palpable.

Despite the limited focus on Sabah, her presence raises some important questions about how women can progress in a society that is, due to outside forces, working against everyone.

When the filmmakers query Abu Jayab, a local ocean-devotee and surf instructor about the disparity, he's matter-of-fact: This is just how it is. There are things women aren't allowed to do and, he adds, everyone accepts it (emphasis mine).

It's a jarring moment - you're rooting for Abu Jayab, who ruefully documents a life without hope, a man who guards his surfboards like they're his children. But there's no distilling the problems women face in Arab society. There's no denying that his words are both truth and a lie - not everyone accepts it, but often women eventually do.

As we journey with Sabah, acceptance is not what comes to mind. It's her candid and outspoken longing - to be as free as the waves she watches from a distance. It's the sense that she is already disrupting a comfortable acceptance of the status quo. It's that it's a disruption that is coming directly from her because it's her fulfilment at stake, and her future. And all the more significant because it's coming from her.  

Amal Awad is a Sydney-based journalist and author. Her latest book, Beyond Veiled Clichés, explores the lives of Arab women. 

Follow her on Twitter: @amalmawad

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.